Stakeholder Perspectives on Immigration Reform

DREAMActToday is Friday, October 18, 2013.

Everybody seems to agree that the U.S. immigration system is broken, but we can’t seem to agree on how to fix the system. It appears that there are a number of elements that need fixing.  Two years ago, the Twin Cities Daily Planet held a series of six community discussions, which they co-hosted with the Minnesota Literacy Council’s English Language Learning programs around the Twin Cities, the Resource Center of the Americas/La Conexión, the Wilder Foundation, and Grove Christian Center.

Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva, who facilitated all six sessions, wrote that she was struck by great variation in the tone and focus of remarks made by those who work with immigrant communities, those who are either politically liberal or conservative, and the immigrants, themselves.  Among those who work directly with immigrants, such as immigration lawyers, small business owners, teachers, social workers, and health care providers, the main concern was integration and assimilation of immigrant communities, and the maintenance of social services and education for immigrant populations.  As you might expect, most of these people tended toward liberal political views.  They spoke of promoting tolerance of diversity and understanding between different cultures., and of fostering economic prosperity within immigrant communities.  Some words that came up in conversation included  “diversity, religious tolerance, citizen engagement, integration, access, defuse tension, positive impact, and contribution.” 

People who were politically conservative, including a great number of those who identify as Christian, had different concerns.  Peterson-de la Cueva noted that some of these people had misconceptions about federal immigration law, how much the state of Minnesota was spending on immigrants, and what immigrants can and cannot do, legally.  Their main concern seemed to be undocumented immigrants.  Peterson-de la Cueva said that many conservatives personally supported immigrants and had a positive attitude about the ones that they have met, even though they insisted that illegal immigration must be firmly dealt with.   Words that came up in their conversation included “illegal immigrants, hardworking, compassion, government spending, government mismanagement, immigrants founded this country, social security card, social security, Christian, and solution.”

The immigrants, themselves had a completely different concern that could be summed up in one word: humane.  They expressed the view that the system is mean, and that it needs, above all, to be made more humane.  They said that the system treats those who are richer and more educated much better than those who are poor and uneducated.  Many of them said that immigration officers spoke to them harshly and made them feel like criminals.   (As an aside, I spent ten years in Japan, and that was the number one complaint among the “foreigners” about the immigration officials in Japan – that they were mean and made people feel like criminals.  I must say that I felt the same way!  I wonder what it is about the mindset of immigration officials in any country that makes them behave this way.)

Until late Wednesday night, the U.S. Congress was mired down in controversy regarding the budget and raising the debt ceiling.  One wonders when they will reach a solution that is good for more than a few short weeks.  Meanwhile, President Obama’s term is not over, and he promised to work on immigration reform during his second term in office.  Perhaps he will be prevented from doing so by the bickering Congress, but it is to be hoped that the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) will finally be passed.

The DREAM Act would provide conditional permanent resident status to certain immigrants of “good moral character” who graduate from U.S. high schools, who arrived in the U.S. under the age of 18, and who lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to enactment of the bill.  If they complete two years in the military or two years at a four-year institution of higher learning, they could get a temporary residency for a six–year period, during which they may qualify for permanent resident status.   It is unclear how the law would actually be enforced.  (How do you ensure that someone is of “good moral character”?) Opponents of the bill say it might reward illegal immigration, and insist on stronger measures to combat and deal with illegal immigration, even though the incidence of illegal immigration is now on the way down.  Some states already have a version of the DREAM Act, and would have to ensure that their own state versions do not conflict with the federal statute.

Will passage of a federal DREAM Act increase tolerance of immigrants, promote economic prosperity among immigrants, hold the line on illegal immigration and make the system more humane?  In some ways, perhaps, but I doubt that one piece of legislation will do all that.  What really needs to happen was expressed very well by Joel Gingery, a Minnesota educator, who spoke for many when he asked, “How do we convince people that immigrants are a positive force in America?  We need to build a vision of what people are doing in this country and what it means to be a citizen, and then we need to communicate that vision.”  🙂

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